Last spring, as part of an independent project
he’d been awarded, senior Nick Edwards spent his afternoons
monitoring and gathering data on KIC 8462852, or “Tabby’s Star,” an astronomical enigma that had elicited significant curiosity and conjecture in the astronomy community due to its dramatic and irregular fluctuations in brightness.
Nicknamed after Dr. Tabetha Boyajian, an assistant professor in Louisiana State University’s department of physics & astronomy and the first individual to write about the star, KIC 8462852 had become the subject of a major research initiative led by Dr. Boyajian and supported by hundreds of researchers in a variety of far-flung locations. Throughout his project, Nick fed brightness measurements gathered at the Thacher Observatory to the research team, corroborating and complementing the data collected by others working on the project.
Now, Nick’s name appears in The Astrophysical Journal, listed among the authors on a research article that was submitted by Dr. Boyajian and accepted for publication this winter. ApJ, as it’s often called, is one of the foremost peer-reviewed research journals in the world devoted to astronomy and astrophysics.
“This is the first time (but almost certainly not the last) that a Thacher student will be listed on a professional astronomical publication as an official contributor,” said Jon Swift
, director of the Thacher Observatory and a math, physics, and astronomy teacher. “It is also the first professional publication that includes data from the Thacher Observatory.”
“It feels very surreal to me,” Nick said of the accomplishment. “I never really understood that I could actually be a contributing author on the paper. I did the project because I thought it was really cool. It feels weird to be the first [Thacher student to be listed as a] contributor, but I hope the project gets other students to talk to Dr. Swift about taking on big astronomy projects.”
Since Nick’s independent project, two new students, Alejandro Wilcox ’19 and Yao Yin ’19, have taken over monitoring Tabby’s Star at the Observatory and continue to share brightness measurements with Dr. Boyajian and her team.
“What the renovated Observatory and Jon’s supervision of astronomy research mean for our kids and for our program is that we now have readily available on campus the means for them to satisfy their own curiosity with independent research,” said Chris Vyhnal
, chair of the science department. “We took the kids to hear Tabby's talk—it caught Nick’s interest—he said, ‘We should observe this’—and we did. And Nick's got his name on the paper as a result.”
He added: “It shows kids what scientific research is—how it works—at the highest level. And now we're trying to apply this pedagogical model elsewhere in Thacher’s science program by fostering additional collaborations outside of astronomy with professionals in scientific research from other institutions.”
“During my time with the astronomy program, I learned a lot about problem-solving,” said Nick. “A lot of how I learned to program was through Googling the errors I got, then trying to make sense of everything. The astronomy program is very hands-on. Your programs break and your observations don't go as planned, but you learn how to overcome those obstacles without getting super frustrated.”